Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What might transparency look like?

So if I were building a transparent portal into a newsroom, what would it look like? What would be relevant? To ask the question another way, what should be private?

To ask which Presidential candidate I supported would be fair, but that one vote doesn't make me transparent -- it just turns me into a caricature. But perhaps politics is the best starting point, since politics is what we SAY we're concerned about (much of what passes for politics is simply personal psychology projected onto an imaginary external screen) when we talk about bias and credibility.

Obviously, political memberships and activities would be on the list. But how deep would we need to go to determine the real orientation of a writer? Take the death penalty: I'm "for" it in the sense that I think it belongs on the books. But I'd also like to see it used less, and would prefer to see the law re-written so that a death sentence would require not only aggravation but a higher standard of proof.

How about abortion? I'm "pro-choice," so you can pencil in "baby killer" right there if you're so inclined. But here's the thing: I'm willing to compromise on aspects of abortion law, particularly if doing so would move abortion rights out of the realm of legal precedent and into the solid footing legislative statute.

Gun control? Nice idea, but I don't trust government enough to agree to it. Separation of church and state? Absolutely. Affirmative action? Yes, but only if we can all agree that it's a corrective measure, not an entitlement. Social security? Stop robbing the trust fund and then we'll talk. Deficits? Depends on what you're borrowing to buy: roads and schools and fiber optic networks are investments; jets and tanks and tax cuts for the wealthy are economic Krispy Kremes.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this isn't what people really want to know. They're really trying to decide what tribe we belong to -- us or them? And describing politics as a series of stances and positions is really just wonkism. It claims the title of transparency, but it misses the point.

Politics is one of the ways we express our hopes and fears via complex cultural proxies. Abortion isn't JUST about abortion and never has been. Affirmative action is a policy -- race is the enormous and complex subject. Social security reform? That's actually a whole series of subjects, many of them related to basic feelings about ideas like "good fences make good neighbors."

And when we get down to this level, we're really talking about revealing our souls. I don't know that I'm ready to do that on the internet.

There is something valuable in transparency, but damned if it doesn't stump me whenever I try to imagine it in a practical application.